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Lions, Tigers and Lightning Oh My!

When to pull the plug on your outdoor concert and other challenges

An Interview by Chris Faria, Raving VP of Marketing

Steve Neely headshot - GM at Rolling Hills Casino

Steve Neely, General Manager, Rolling Hills Casino Resort

Kell Houston - Raving Entertainment Partner

Kell Houston, Entertainment Buyer and President, Houston Productions

Rojelio Morales headshot - Interim Marketing Direct at Tachi Palace Hotel Casino

Rojelio Morales, Interim Marketing Director, Tachi Palace Hotel & Casino

For many tribal casinos, summer represents an opportunity to hold outdoor concerts, creating a new revenue source or branding opportunity when there isn’t a large enough or available space inside.

But whoa, Nellie! The pros will tell you that a successful outdoor concert series is not as simple as setting a stage and having guests bring blankets and folding chairs to sit on the lawn under a summer sky.

Recently, I chatted with two longtime industry experts, Steve Neely, General Manager, Rolling Hills Casino Resort in Northern California, and Kell Houston, Entertainment Buyer and President of Houston Productions. Adding to our discussion is Rojelio Morales, Interim Marketing Director, Tachi Palace Hotel & Casino, in Central California, who is very-hands on with their indoor and seasonal outdoor events (thanks to his training from Tachi Palace 's Entertainment Manager, Mary Moon).

Steve has created a new 2019 concert series at Rolling Hills Casino, and has constructed a temporary outdoor amphitheater. At press time, he’s had his trial run with War and special guest Paul Rodriguez, and followed the next week with Dwight Yoakam, and is now building up to a larger concert July 4 with Trace Atkins. This is a big change from his previous organizations – Casino Del Sol in Tucson and Sandia Casino in Albuquerque – where he had the luxury of a permanent outdoor amphitheater with a robust concert series.

Steve said he and Director of Marketing, Jeffrey Jantz, are the only folks on the team with expansive concert experience (Jantz joined Rolling Hills last summer after nine years with Isleta Resort and Casino in Albuquerque). This concert series is all about training his team on the Four “Ss”: Safety, Sanitation, Signage and Staffing.

CF: How did the first concert go?

SN: You know, it was a good first couple of concerts but I can honestly say that the team learned a lot and we’ll be better prepared for our July 4 event. We did a whole lot of prep work and training on the Four Ss (Sanitation, Safety, Signage and Staffing) – but come game day, it wasn’t until everything was fully set-up that the team could truly understand the logistics of bodies and flow, and where lines get backed-up. It was at that point that all the prep really made sense to them.

CF: Give me an example.

SN: First, let’s talk about sanitation. You have to have enough porta-potties and trash cans. Second, it might be nice to have sani-huts a distance away for aesthetics, but our older guests are not going to walk that far to get to them – don’t forget, we are a casino first and foremost so we have to be aware of who our core patrons are. We were moving porta-potties closer that day.

CF: You also mentioned safety and traffic concerns.

SN: Yes, we’re right off the freeway, so traffic is a huge safety issue as you can’t have a back-up on the exit, that’s a massive accident waiting to happen. Working out the details for traffic flow was critical for us and the safety of our guests and the community.

CF: Rojelio, you pointed out something interesting when asked what details might be overlooked by an inexperienced entertainment team.

RM: There are a lot of details related to the overall execution of buying entertainment and executing a successful show. However, the one detail that stands out for me is the rider agreement. Here at Tachi Palace, we cannot provide entertainers with free alcohol due to our gaming compact, so it’s important to emphasize this during the negotiation period.

CF: You also have had some weather events this season that have impacted your shows?

RM: Yes, we had two events this past May that caused some last-minute adjustments on our side due to more than average rainfall. One resulted in canceling the lead act, Brenton Wood, at our 10th annual RezMade Car Show and Concert, as it wasn’t safe for the artist. And the other, meant moving all of the seating and staging from our sprung structure to another drier area for the Vince Neil show!

CF: Kell, what’s the best piece of advice you can give to a casino who is considering an outdoor venue that might not be so obvious besides praying it won’t rain?

KH: My first response is why? Outdoor shows require a massive amount of infrastructure to create, then you are at the mercy of weather and the environment. However, if you are planning on creating a real outside venue and then doing shows from May through October, it’s important to bring in people to consult on the layout and specific details as Steve has done. An outdoor venue requires power drops, a permanent covered stage, dressing rooms, hospitality areas, porta-potties, parking, a large area for seating, areas for F&B to set up, and maybe bleachers.

For a property that has no inside venue, this is a way to do bigger, branding events. Just understand the real costs involved and the casino manpower needed to staff outside. Do you have enough parking for all of the additional people? Consider the cost of renting a stage and all of the other things you will need to go outside. If you only plan to do a couple of shows, the costs can outweigh the value.

On top of all that, you are at the mercy of the weather. For properties in the Northwest, you all know what I mean!

CF: Is there anything in the contract that if a casino is not using an entertainment buyer, a new entertainment director might not know to add in about acts of God and weather?

KH: In every contract there is a clause dealing with cancellation. Here’s a sample:

"Purchaser shall remain liable for payment of the full contract price regardless of the cancellation of the engagement or non-performance by artist by virtue of inclement weather. Artist shall have the sole right to determine in good faith whether any such weather conditions shall render the performance impossible, hazardous or unsafe, and artist shall have no obligation to perform in any such event."

Typically, everyone wants the show to happen. This clause needs to always be amended to “mutually agreed.” This kind of situation is about communication. If lightening is striking all around and the wind is blowing 50+ miles per hour and you have a steady downpour, it’s pretty obvious. But a lot of situations aren’t quite so clear cut. Sometimes you can wait out some weather events, storms will pass.

CF: Rebook or refund? What is your best advice for clients who are booking outdoor entertainment events?

KH: Rebooking or rescheduling is first preference. But it depends on the artist's schedule. If your date is part of a tour, rescheduling can be difficult. It may come down to refunding all tickets and finding a new date, sometimes months away, or even next year. Then you also have to consider the artist has incurred costs getting to you and paying their crew. In most situations like this, you may have to incur the additional costs to get the artist back for the new date, on top of the fee. Plus the cost and time to refund all ticket holders. On top of all of this, you have all of your expenses for the day of the show and marketing that you now have to absorb.

CF: What about rain insurance?

SN: I haven’t done rain insurance in years. You have to have a meteorologist on sight for validation. Years ago, at Sandia, we worked out a deal with the local TV station to send out their meteorologist. That covered two things: the requirement for insurance, as well as got us some additional press coverage as they reported live from our venue.

KH: I agree with Steve, getting rain insurance is a tough call. And, as he said, you need a rain reporting station very close by. Some venues actually pay to set up a rain station at the venue, but that’s an additional cost.

CF: Kell, Steve's tickets say, "ALL WEATHER EVENT." Just how wet is too wet for an artist or the audience?

KH: Again, wet is just one of the issues. Lightning strikes in close proximity are bad but usually blow through. Wind events can be dangerous as well. If there is enough rain being blown onto the stage and the gear, that’s a very dangerous situation. Typically, a light drizzle is a mess, but if the stage is well covered, shows can go on. Audience members may get a little wet, but as long as the stage is dry, the show can go on. Always remember, the artist will make the call, and you have to negotiate when it is questionable.

SN: I agree. Rain is one thing, and that's why we have “all weather event” (which also covers wind and lightening) on our tickets. However, I agree with Kell, wind and lightening are much more dangerous.

RM: When your stage needs to be squeegeed its probably too wet for the artist, and a safety issue (that’s why we had to cancel our headliner in May). Sometimes lightening will pass in thirty minutes and the show can go on. Sometimes not. But always keep the crowd informed, knowing both the artist and the venue are doing their best with the situation at hand.

CF: Rojelio, as your summer temperatures can spike to over 100 degrees, you address another safety issue with heat, correct?

RM: We’ve used a misting system and have created cool zones on extreme temperature event days.

CF: Steve, one of your four “Ss” is signage – what’s not so obvious?

SN: With the right signage, you can cut down on how much you need of the fourth “S” – staffing. It’s important to remember that what’s obvious to us as casino team members, is not obvious to our guests. For example, our casino guests are used to navigating their way around the casino. For our outdoor concerts, we’ve just created a new venue. They don’t know where the bathrooms are. They don’t know where the special parking is. They don’t know where the bars are. A sign can be right in front of them but they may not notice it as there’s a lot going on. And keep in mind that some of these guests might be older as well; food trucks, beer stations, all might be new and need to be explained.

So there you have it. We welcome your thoughts and stories about your outdoor concert venues – your successes and what you’ve learned. If you have challenges around your casino entertainment program, please email us or give us a call at 775-329-7864. Kell has been a trusted Raving Partner since the dawn of time (okay, close to two decades, almost the same). He’s truly an expert in helping Tribal gaming operations choose the right entertainment for their venues, along with all the sticky contract details that can bog down a successful concert series.

PS – Kell is also a fundamental partner for our Native Strong Comedy Slam & Jam held during NIGA (march 2020) each year. We’ve added a new component: an online auction of signed guitars by artists who are playing at your casinos this summer. We’d love to get your Tribal casino some exposure and help us raise even more money for the Notah Begay III Foundation. To find out more go to ComedySlamAndJam.com.

Lions, Tigers and Lightning Oh My!

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